Understanding and Assisting English Language Learners in School     

By Matthew Weyer | Vol . 26, No. 18 / May 2018

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English language learners (ELLs) in educational systems are defined as those between ages 3 and 21, enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary or secondary school, and whose native language is not English. ELLs may have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding English. They can struggle to find success in classrooms where English is the language of instruction, potentially preventing them from fully participating in society.

On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fourth-grade English language learners trailed their non-ELL counterparts in math (14 percent at or above proficient compared to 43 percent of non-ELLs) and in reading (9 percent at or above proficient compared to 40 percent of non-ELLs). These gaps can persist throughout their K-12 education and may lead to the gap in high school graduation rates, with English language learners trailing the national average by 17 percentage points.

English language learners' high school graduation rates vary from state to state. For example, 93 percent of ELLs graduated from high school in West Virginia, while 32 percent graduated in Arizona. In California, the ELL graduation rate has risen from 65 percent in 2014 to 72 percent in 2016. Graduation rates may be of concern based on their link to state economies. Additionally, the ELL population has been changing rapidly, especially in states formerly not accustomed to serving large populations of these students. 

State Action

Since January 2015, 43 states plus Washington, D.C., have introduced over 390 bills relating to English language learners. Typically, more bills have been introduced in states with larger ELL populations, but as the map demonstrates, states have been seeing fluctuating numbers of ELLs in recent years. Following are some of the innovative approaches states are taking to track and assist English language learners.

  • Looking closely at data on English language learners. Washington has created an “Ever ELL” category to classify all K-12 students who have ever been classified as English language learners, leading to more accurate data reporting. The expanded group includes students who transition out of an ELL program when they meet state English proficiency and academic criteria to be exited or reclassified. Because high-performing ELLs tend to exit the program, they are not included in tracking data, which can make it appear as though ELL students are underachieving. This puts pressure on students, teachers and districts. To paint a clearer picture of how ELLs are performing, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states to include them in their data for four years after they exit the program, up from two years under No Child Left Behind. This is an example of expanding longitudinal data tracking for ELLs and providing a clearer picture of their achievement.
  • Identifying and supporting long-term ELLs. ESSA requires states to report on the number and percentage of English language learners who have not exited ELL status after five years. These students, known as long-term ELLs, have stalled in progressing toward English proficiency, are struggling academically and are four times more likely to drop out of high school. California Assembly Bill 81, enacted in 2017, requires the state department of education to identify and report the number of students who are, or are at risk of becoming, long-term ELLs. The bill allows for parental notification and requires reporting on how the English language development program will support long-term ELLs and those at risk of not meeting academic standards.
  • Standardizing and monitoring reclassification practices. ESSA requires states to have state-level, standardized criteria for reclassifying ELLs as English proficient, with the goal of more uniform and equitable practices. Yet research indicates that practitioners may be implementing these policies differently, leading to varying likelihoods that ELLs will be reclassified, even when the same criteria are used. Therefore, a number of states are taking the lead in educating school personnel involved in these decisions about why the policies are in place and why they are important. As part of its state ESSA plan, Texas has included annual training for districts to ensure that the reclassification procedure is conducted with fidelity and in accordance with state regulations. Wisconsin’s ESSA plan includes providing an ELL Policy Handbook for practitioners that was created by ELL experts and educators who met several times to provide guidance and review suggested policies.

Federal Action

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states report on the English language proficiency of English language learners as part of Title I, a significant change from past reporting and accountability requirements. All states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have submitted their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education. As of May 2, 2018, the U.S. education secretary has approved plans for 37 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. All remaining states have received feedback and are working on revisions. The Department of Education keeps an updated list of states’ approval status.